Britain needs to start building new rail lines now because services including the West Coast Main Line will soon be full, the head of the nation's rail network has warned.
Iain Coucher, chairman of Network Rail, warned decisions needed to be made immediately, when he was interrogated by a panel of MPs.
His no-nonsense comments followed warnings at an earlier Commons hearing from Virgin Trains, which which runs services on the West Coast Main Line.
Virgin told MPs that passengers would experience severe overcrowding by 2011, with standing room only on services from London to Birmingham, because of growing demand for services.
Mr Coucher's comments will put further pressure on the Government to consider creating a new rail service to take pressure off the West Coast Main Line, probably linking Birmingham to London and the North.
Rail industry experts appear to be convinced that a new line is needed, possibly connected to the Channel Tunnel.
But the Government has launched a consultation about the future of the rail network which is not expected to make any decisions until 2014.
Transport ministers have also warned that a new high speed rail line could cost as much as £30 billion, although cheaper options are also available.
Speaking to the Transport Select Committee, Mr Coucher warned that the money already invested in rail, including £8.6 billion spent upgrading the West Coast Main Line, was not enough to create a modern network.
He said: "All the money has been going into catching up on the backlog of the investment which should have been done by British Rail and was not, that should have been done by Railtrack and was not."
Mr Coucher warned MPs: "When we look at the demands for future rail travel, we believe that the south end of things like the West Coast, Midland Main Line and East Coast will become saturated and that at some point you will need to build a new line between London and those areas.
"What people will be looking at in the next three or four years is the possible route for that . . . we should look at whether we do this using a high-speed train and connect it to the Channel Tunnel."
He added: "At this point in time, we believe we can accommodate growth on those lines for the next five to seven years, but we need to start planning now for the possibility of building new lines to those areas in the next few years."
Asked by one MP when the work should start, he said: "We should start planning for it as soon as we possibly can. That will determine when you need to build it, but we certainly need to plan where it goes, what it should look like, what cities it goes to, whether it should connect to airports and answer all those questions so that when the need is there to build it, we can get on and do it straightaway."
The Network Rail chairman also defended plans to refurbish Birmingham's New Street Station after Manchester MP Graham Stringer asked why Birmingham need a new station more than Manchester or Leeds. Mr Coucher said: "Birmingham New Street is certainly the most overcrowded station we have on the network.
"The solution there is aimed at relieving passenger congestion. There has been a 40 per cent increase in footfall at the station in the last three years since they have opened the Bull Ring." n A rail line was closed following a fire at a nearby tyre storage depot.
Ten fire engines were sent to tackle the blaze at Wyvern Tyres on the Holmer Trading Estate in Hereford which broke out just after 7.30pm on Monday.
The fire was brought under control by 11pm but the line remained closed yesterday morning because of debris on the track and an unsafe lineside building. Inspectors were assessing the building.
The line between Hereford and Ludlow was closed to all trains, Network Rail said. It was not known when the line would reopen.